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Fraternal follies

Fraternal follies

Fraternities and sororities are a central element of student life at many North American colleges and universities, but not at Queen’s. However, as Review Editor Ken Cuthbertson reports, it hasn’t always been that way.

For more than a century now, fraternities and sororities have been central to student life on the campuses of colleges and universities across North America. These Greek-letter societies are focal points for a variety of activities, some of them laudable, others deplorable.

The U of T has them. So do McGill, Western, and several other well-known Canadian universities. South of the border, elite Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Brown, Yale, and Princeton do, too – albeit reluctantly in the case of the latter two.

[Eat-a-Pie Club]Herb Carter, the manager of  the Eat-a-Pie
Club in 1914 hands rent payment to the club's
landlady. (Queen's Archives photo)

Supporters say fraternities and sororities provide undergraduate students with a much-needed sense of community, emotional support, and even a “home away from home.” Critics counter that these groups are exclusionary, elitist, and promote anti-social behaviour that’s sexist, rowdy, and promotes binge drinking. Even if that’s not really the case, it’s the popular image that the 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House had fun with and glorified.

Within the memory of most living alumni, fraternities and sororities have been conspicuous in their absence from Queen’s campus. However, this wasn’t always so.

No female students have ever tried to organize a sorority on campus – possibly because they had residences earlier than the men and Goodwin, Matheson, Gordon, and Muir Houses offered some of the best aspects of sorority houses, but there was a time in the early 1930s when it looked as if fraternities were taking root at Queen’s. And they might well have done so, if the Alma Mater Society (AMS) -- with the support of then-Principal W. Hamilton Fyfe -- hadn’t moved to outlaw them. In fact, 2009 marked the 75th anniversary of an historic student vote to ban fraternities and sororities from campus, a move that followed a bitter and at times emotional debate and headline-making prosecutions that left a segment of the student population angry, hurt, and forever resentful towards their alma mater.

This little-known page of Tricolour history was inadvertently highlighted in 2009 when the University honoured retired Kingston businessman Graham Thomson, BCom’34, at the first-ever Spring Reunion’s “Re-Convocation” ceremony.

A few words of explanation are needed to clarify what this has to do with fraternities.

Thomson was a former student, who never actually graduated from Queen’s. He was in the third year of his studies when he dropped out to work in his father’s insurance business. That was in late 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. Times were tough. “My family had no money,” he recalled. “People were still buying insurance policies, but often it was difficult to collect the premiums.”

Despite never having completed his degree, Thomson went on to a stellar business career. For many years he was one of Kingston’s leading citizens, operating successful insurance and real estate brokerage businesses and volunteering for many civic causes. Through it all, he remained a loyal Queen’sman and encouraged his son, George Thomson, LLB’65, to follow in his footsteps. The latter did so, and, unlike his dad, was able to complete his Arts and Law studies. The younger Thomson has enjoyed such an exemplary legal and public-service career in Ottawa that Queen’s gave him an honorary doctorate in 2007.

I think it was some medical students who were the first to start a fraternity on campus. . . .

In recognition of the elder Thomson’s long association with Queen’s and to acknowledge the fact he was one of only about a dozen of the 388 original members of the Class of 1934 who were still living, the University awarded him a certificate hailing him as an honorary graduate of Arts’34. When his good friend, Emeritus Professor (Political Studies) Stewart Fyfe, Arts’49, MA’55 (no relation to Principal Fyfe), contacted the Review to ensure the news was duly reported in the magazine, he mentioned in passing Thomson’s role in the dramatic events that led to the banning of fraternities and sororities at Queen’s in 1934.

This was the first I’d heard of this. I knew that the University had outlawed fraternities and sororities, but I had only a sketchy knowledge of the details. The news that Thomson was a key figure in the process prompted me to ring him up in hopes of learning the details.

Although he turned 100 in August 2009, Graham Thomson was still relatively hale and hardy when I called on him a few weeks later. Since he lived in one of those grand old Victorian houses just a few blocks north of campus, he suggested that I drop by to see him. He would, he said, tell me the story of his role in the drama that ended in Queen’s banning fraternities and sororities.

“I was the president of Delta Omega Kappa in 1933,” Thomson recalled when I visited him. “I think it was some medical students who were the first to start a fraternity on campus.” According to the Review archives, that is correct, but it’s only half the story. Longtime Review editor Herb Hamilton, BA’31, LLD’75, relates in his 1977 book Queen’s Queen’s Queen’s that Edward Wood, BA 1910, MD 1914, told him a chapter of the New York-based Phi Sigma Kappa was active on campus in the 1890s and early 1900s.

For several years, the group flew “below the radar,” as we now say. However, when the administration this was happening, the principal issued an edict banning fraternities, that was the end of that. Well, sort of.

Another old grad, J. Arnot MacGregor, BA 1915, MD 1921, told Hamilton that in the years just prior to WWI, he and a group of his classmates -- some students being ever ready to challenge authority—started a group called the “Eat-a-Pie-Club.” It violated no University ban and, as Hamilton noted, “still approximated the sound of a Greek-letter society.”

[Graham Thompson]Graham Thompson in the fall of 2009.
(Ken Cuthbertson photo)

The club, made up of a couple dozen students, many of them varsity athletes, scholars, musicians, and the like, was based in a house on Alfred Street, not far from campus. The residence, “owned by two gracious ladies who acted as hostess and waitress,” was run on a co-op basis. A 1914 archival photo shows the landlady and her “27 contented customers,” as Herb Hamilton described them. “The venture lasted several years,” he wrote, “and came to an end shortly after illness struck down the ladies who provided the motive power.”

It seems the debate about the merits of fraternities died down for a few years after that. Then in 1924, a group of Arts undergrads again proposed the idea of starting a fraternity at Queen’s. Their campaign touched off a debate that simmered on-and-off for much of the next decade. Occasionally the rhetoric heated up and spilled over into the pages of the campus media.

J. Alex. Edmison, BA’26, LLD’74, who had once belonged to a fraternity at McGill, penned an impassioned anti-fraternity article that appeared in the December 1929 issue of the Review (then published nine times each year). “I believe that such an innovation would contribute little to, and possibly detract from, that traditional spirit so long associated with student affairs at Queen’s,” he wrote.

This was too much for those of the opposite mind. J. C. Macgillivray, BA’23, responded with a four-page article in the May 1930 issue of the Alumni Review in which he made the case for fraternities at Queen’s, arguing that “new vistas would be opened up to the undergraduate and there would be a broadening influence which would benefit all and harm none.”

This is about when Graham Thomson appeared on the scene. He arrived on campus in the autumn of 1930. At age 21 -- students tended to be older in those days -- he was carefree and, as a Kingston freshman, didn’t pay much, if any, attention to the debate that was playing itself out in boarding houses, AMS meetings, and the pages of the University’s alumni magazine. He may not even have been aware -- he no longer remembers if he was -- that the AMS in January 1931 amended its constitution to include a clause that outlawed fraternities or sororities made up of AMS members. Since all undergraduate students at Queen’s are members of the Society, ipso facto, that meant fraternities were effectively banned from campus. That restriction lasted until 1933.

Graham Thomson (who had been elected chair of the of the 1933 Orientation Week committee) and a half-dozen like-minded friends began lobbying for an end to the AMS ban. They got their wish when supporters took advantage of sparse attendance at the student government’s annual general meeting to put forward a motion repealing the ban on fraternities. When it was, that opened the door for Thomson et al. to start a chapter of the Delta Omega Kappa fraternity. He quickly recruited 39 members, each of whom anted up the two-dollar monthly membership fee.

“At first, we rented a place on Princess Street. It was owned by a man who had quit his job with the prison service. He lived in the house and worked as our cook,” Thomson recalled.

The fraternity subsequently moved to another house on the southwest corner of Stuart and Barrie Streets (where the new Medical School building is now under construction), and then a limestone house at King and Earl Streets, which was owned by Canada Steamship Lines.

Unlike the rowdy frat houses of today, the Delta Omega Kappa headquarters was a model of propriety.

Thomson noted that while after so many years many of the details of the fraternity’s operations had grown fuzzy in his mind, he does remember his own situation. “Money was still tight, and so I continued to live at home,” he said. “However, I spent a lot of time at the fraternity house and still have fond memories of the place.”

Unlike the rowdy frat houses of today, the Delta Omega Kappa headquarters was a model of propriety. “We were almost a non-drinking outfit. We only had alcohol in the house on special occasions,” said Thomson. “There were no women [members] allowed. If I ever wanted to bring my girl there for a visit, I had to sign her into the guest book.”

Thomson also explained that the local chapter of Delta Omega Kappa was loosely run and took what he describes as a relaxed approach to its activities. It was also “Queen’s-oriented,” much to the dismay of the fraternity’s American brothers, who sometimes came to Kingston for meetings. “We were a bit too lenient about things for their liking,” said Thomson.

A 1934 Queen's Meds fraternity pin that has been made into a ring1934 Queen's Meds
fraternity pin that
has been made into
a ring

Despite this, the fraternity remained in the cross-hairs of those who were opposed to the group on principle. When the slate of officers put forward by the Arts-Levana-Theology party, staunch anti-fraternity types, swept to power in the 1933-34 AMS elections, winning five of six executive positions, Thomson knew there would be trouble. It came quickly.

New AMS President Albert Winnett, BA’34, set up a three-member fact-finding committee to look in the operations of fraternities on campus and to issue a report on the two such groups that were known to be active -- Delta Omega Kappa and a medical students’ quasi-fraternity called Psi Delta Phi. In the wake of that report, Winnett and his executive team proposed a two-clause amendment of the AMS constitution. One part banned all Greek-letter societies from campus and the other slapped controls on “any clubs of students living together for social purposes and governed by a constitution.”

These proposals were debated in an open meeting held in Grant Hall. The gathering drew more than 1,000 students, who listened as impassioned speakers on both sides of the issue stood up to have their say. However, when the din had died and the votes were counted, the ban on fraternities and sororities (which were included even though none were active on campus) was approved by the required two-third majority; the measure having to do with clubs was not.

In the wake of the AMS meeting, the Alumni Association executive, the University Senate, and the Board of Trustees all came out in support of the ban on fraternities. That, as they say, sealed the deal. Surprisingly, even Graham Thomson came away convinced the right thing had been done. “Some of us who were involved [with Delta Omega Kappa] changed our minds when we heard Albert Winnett’s speech that night in Grant Hall. We voted in favour of the constitutional amendments banning fraternities because we didn’t want to divide the campus or have things broken up at Queen’s,” he said. His membership kept their frat initials in an altered form and became the D.O.K Club for a year or two.

Herb Hamilton noted that some medical alumni never forgave the nine professors who had encouraged them to join Nu Sigma Nu and who had joined it themselves . . . .

[Principal Fyfe]Principal Fyfe

The measure adopted that fall was endorsed by Principal Fyfe, who saluted “the good sense of the students and their elected representatives.” In his annual report for 1933-34, he wrote, “We do not want [fraternities] at Queen’s, because the whole University is itself a fraternity, and our brotherly spirit would inevitably suffer from rival loyalties and from the exclusive spirit which fraternities tend to foster.”

Herb Hamilton noted that some medical alumni never forgave the nine professors who had encouraged them to join Ni Sigma Nu, and who had joined it themselves, but who never spoken up. Neither did the alumnui forgive Principal Fyfe for backing the ban on fraternities (they assumed he’d given their fraternity his tacit approval, only to unilaterally withdraw it later). However, after the 1934 prosecution of the 24 Meds student members of Nu Sigma Nu (including four star varsity football players) made national news, the matter has never again been a “live issue” at Queen’s. That was true in 1977 when Hamilton made that observation, 33 years after that historic student vote. And it remains true to this day, 75 years later.

“It was a long time ago,” said Graham Thomson. “Looking back on it now, I think really it was the right thing to do. The ban was a good decision.”